Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back To School--Back to Writing!

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

It's here!  It's here!  Back-to-school has officially happened in our family.  Yesterday, August 28th, 6 of my 8 cherubs headed back to the classroom, some kicking and screaming (ok, not really!) but overall, they were ready to get back to some structure and routines once again.

This time of year has always been one of my favorites, and I promise not just because I've just had 10 weeks at home with 8 kids.  Fall is the season that resonates most with me--the change in the color of the sky from hazy to clear, the crisp snap in the air after months of humidity and heat, the tranquil stillness that surrounds me every afternoon as the late-summer crickets chirp in harmony and the squirrels scamper back and forth playing in the trees.  It's almost like an awakening for me and my senses which allows me to refocus and re-energize all that stirs deep in my heart and soul.

A big part of that re-energizing is now aimed at my writing goals.  Though summer is much more laid back in general, with my kids home 24/7, it's not as easy for me to stay on task with my major writing goals.  So now that that glorious yellow bus will be visiting my neighborhood for the next 10 months, I will conjure up new discipline to make some of my goals happen--my main goal of finishing my novel!

I'm a fairly organized person (you have to be raising 8 kids) but when it comes to my personal writing, I admit that I often lack discipline and structure.  Thankfully, I have come across many wonderful tools that have helped get me back on track.  One of my "go to" articles for setting effective writing goals is written by a freelance writer and author I follow often, Moira Allen.  

Setting Effective Writing Goals shares some smart, insightful and doable strategies for writers just starting out or who have been writing for years.  

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link above, but I will share below one of my favorite tips from Moira Allen's well-stated advice:

Meaningful. In writing, it's easy to be sidetracked by goals that appear worthwhile, but that don't lead in the direction you want to go. This can often be the result of competing goals. For example, you may dream of becoming a novelist, but face the very real need to put food on the table. Consequently, it's easy to postpone that novel (which won't earn you a dime until it's finished) for more immediately lucrative projects. In a situation like this, remember that competing goals don't have to be an either/or proposition: You could resolve this problem by devoting 25% of your writing time to your novel, and the other 75% to income-producing articles.

Another source of sidetracking is the pursuit of someone else's goals or recommendations for "success." Writing magazines are full of sure-fire secrets and formulas, but often fail to mention that these strategies don't work for everyone. For example, if you've set the goal of "getting up every morning to write before work," that may work fine -- unless you happen to be a natural night person, in which case you'll either hate those hours of writing, or hate yourself for being unable to achieve the goal you've set. Similarly, if you've been told that a good writer always keeps a journal, but yours bores you to tears, you may come to the mistaken conclusion that you aren't a "real" writer -- or simply waste a lot of time in a pursuit that has no real meaning for you. At the same time, be careful about passing up opportunities just because they don't seem immediately fulfilling. Taking a writing class, for example, may not seem exciting, but it could help you toward your long-term goals.

How do you set effective goals for your writing?  Does back-to-school inspire you as well?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reads for Writers: Beth Kephart Provides a Masterclass

From Kate's Writer's Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

            Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.

        Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart is both a memoir of becoming a writer as well as an instructional book encouraging other writers to write memoirs. This is not a tell-all book, but a beautifully written show-all book.

        Kephart reveals how she became a National Book Award Finalist author. "A closet writer from early on with boxes filled with poems and submissions of short stories returned unpublished," she reads a memoir that changes her life in 1990, Road Song by Natalie Kusz.
        Enraptured with this book, she writes Kusz a letter through her publisher. In the reply… "I hadn't read memoir, hadn't written it, and then there was Kusz unveiling its mystery for me, explaining, by way of a thank-you, what a book like hers was designed to do. Writers are in the business of attempting to expose the human condition in such a way that our description resonates in the souls of other humans…Yes, I thought. I want to be in that business."
To get in that business, Kephart attends her first writing workshop while in Italy for a family vacation. "What I learned in Spoleto, what I chose to value or come to believe about myself, would shape the way I thought about stories made and lived every thereafter day of my life. It would make me want to find a way to pass the knowing down."
Kephart found her voice and a way to pass the knowing down. Author of eighteen other books, she illustrates this memoir with excerpts from memoirs she loves, views of other authors, and assignments from the writing students she now teaches. She sets the bar high for writers who want to get into this business, but also provides support, a few prompts, and numerous inspiring examples to help you along the way.
Her most important advice: read memoirs if you want to write memoirs. Kephart includes a 52-page in-depth appendix listing memoirs of note.
Handling the Truth is my favorite type of read. It stands on its own as a well-written book; it tells the story of a writer believing in herself; it includes insights, suggestions, and goals for other writers; and it recommends many other well-written books—a gift that keeps on giving!
Please recommend your favorite reads.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Love Affair With Libraries

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Yesterday my kids and I spent a quiet afternoon at our local library.  I must confess.......when I think of Heaven..........I can definitely equate the two!  As they selected their next reads, I sat and just soaked in the smell of crisp paper and let the calm and peaceful atmosphere envelope me in complete inspiration.

I don't often go to the library to do my writing and the main reason for that is I find it much too distracting.  Don't get me wrong, it's not that my library of choice is loud and filled with obnoxious patrons--quite the contrary.  I always feel at home with the souls that sit and peruse their favorite authors or write eagerly or intently in their journals or on their laptops.  The reason I can't stay focused on my own writing projects is that I love exploring the aisles and rooms of our library so I just can't seem to stay seated in one place for very long.

Every time I go to the library I think of it as a treasure hunt.  Depending on my mood I just never know what hidden gems I will find.  Yesterday, for instance, I was in the mood to explore cookbooks.  I love to cook when I'm not pressured or rushed, but with the new school year right around the corner, I know my pace is going to go from semi-laid back to full throttle in only a few short weeks and with that, my love of making homemade pasta sauces and puttering in the kitchen is going to come to a screeching halt.

Or...........maybe not.

After spending nearly an hour in the cookbook section, I found three new cookbooks that I think could change all that, and one of them was an international sandwich cookbook!  I actually felt tingly as I checked the books out, almost as though I had a new purpose in our "back to school" life because I had some fresh, flavorful new recipes to try out during the first few weeks of school.

As a writer, I think routine visits to the library are simply a must!  This wonderful treasure trove of a building is not just about books and words, it's about inspiration, dreaming, reflecting and discovering endless bits of information that can open one's mind to places the mind might never be able to experience.

These days our libraries are a fountain of new-aged information.  Not only can you check out thousands upon thousands of books, DVDs and videos you also have access to:

  • e-books, magazines (online and in print) and the internet.

  • technology training

  • job-search resources

  • cultural and educational events

  • lectures and continuing educational series

  • free concerts and art presentations

  • free museum passes for your family

  • a great place to connect and meet individuals from all walks of life

  • story hours

  • teen reading events

  • book clubs

The list goes on and on.  As both a book lover and writer, I am so grateful for this amazing resource available to all of us for free and in our own backyards.

What are some of your thoughts and experiences with your local libraries?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Writers' Room: TV Show for Writers 4

From Kate's Writing Crate…

        I was flipping through the guide for my cable channels when I saw The Writers' Room appear on the Sundance Channel. On Mondays at 10pm with repeats throughout the week, you can see a group of writers discussing the plots and lines of the different TV shows they work on.

        I am always fascinated to discover how other writers work whether they write books, articles, columns, blogs, or TV shows. Granted writing for TV is far different than writing other things, but when you get to hear how it is done maybe it is the career for you.

        What most appeals to me is the camaraderie the TV writers have together. They get to bounce ideas off each other, get immediate feedback, and build on each other's ideas and lines to create TV shows like Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, and Dexter.

        If only all writing was such fun. However, most of us go to a "writer's room" by ourselves and wrench the words, ideas, and plots out of our imagination and write them down. We have to get past our internal editor that mocks us. Trust that we know what we are doing and where we are going even if only subconsciously. And show up every day whether we want to or not so we can get our work done even though it may take years to complete.

We do not get immediate feedback. Sometimes we lose our way. And, unless we have writers for friends, we don't receive much sympathy or support when our writing isn't going well.

But we do have the satisfaction of knowing that we are keeping faith with our deepest wish to be writers. Every time we pick up a pen or pencil or start to type, we are doing what we love no matter how difficult or frustrating. And we also know the exhilaration of good days when words are pouring out of us.

Remember every word you write is one word closer to finishing your novel, screenplay, short story, or whatever project you are working on. Just keep faith in yourself and, one day, you will write the last word of that project.

How do you keep faith with your writing dreams?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Challenging Yourself As a Writer

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

In just two weeks, my kids will be heading back to school.  This is always a very bittersweet time of year for me.  As much as I love the beach and warmer weather and enjoy having them home (for ten weeks!) especially without the pressure of homework, sports activities and other commitments, I also love what a new school year stands for.

I've always loved how the start of a new school year means fresh possibilities, both in and out of the classroom, for all of us.  There are so many new things to be learned, new friends to be met, and definitely new experiences to be had.  My kids may not see it that way, but in time, I hope they too will appreciate how exciting it is to take an empty tablet of paper and journal some new goals to grow and challenge themselves with as the steamy days of summer blend quietly with the crisper days of autumn.

As a mother, I use this time of year to regroup and refocus on how I can freshen up our home as well as anything I can do to freshen up my parenting style including how I interact with my kids, my expectations of them and certainly my attitude.

As a writer, this time of year inspires me to improve my craft, review my writing goals, and above all to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself.  Summer days are lazy and many times non productive whereas the cooler, clearer days of autumn can usually re energize my vision and my muse.

An article I always keep handy for this very purpose is 73 Ways to Become a Better Writer
By Mary Jaksch.

It's a compilation of advice from over 50 different writers on how they challenge themselves to become a better writer.  I was so inspired by it that I printed it and keep a copy in my writer's crate.

I hope when you have time you can visit the list yourself, but for now I thought I'd share a few of my favorites from that article.

  • Write in different genres: blog posts, poems, short stories, essays.

  • Challenge yourself: write in a crowded cafe, write on the toilet, write for 24 hours straight.

  • Watch movies. Can you write the story better?

  • Read your stuff aloud to anyone who can stand it – including the dog or cat.

  • When in doubt, cut it out.

  • Read your old stuff and acknowledge how far you’ve come – and how far you have to go.

  • Take risks – don’t be afraid to shock. You are not who you think you are.

  • Tell everyone: “I’m a writer.”
How can you challenge yourself as a writer this fall?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Writing Rituals

From Kate's Writing Crate…

            I'm a writer so I should love to write—and I do—but I hate getting started. Call it resistance or procrastination, but I have to force myself go to my desk unless I am on deadline. It's nice to know I am not the only one as I found out when I read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He shares the creative routines of 161 well-known writers, composers, painters, choreographers, playwrights, poets, philosophers, sculptors, filmmakers, and scientists.

As Currey writes in the Introduction:

"…most of the people in this book are…committed to daily work but never entirely sure confident in their progress; always wary of the one day off that undoes the streak. All of them made the time to get their work done. But there is infinite variation in how they structured their lives to do so.

This book is about that variation. And I hope that readers will find it encouraging…"

            Writers work morning, noon, and night depending on who you ask.
On page 6, "I am always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day," [Simone de] Beauvoir told The Paris Review in 1965. "I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine…"
On page 122, Maya Angelou stated "…I keep a hotel room in which I do my work—a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it is going well, I'll stay as long as it is going well. It's lonely and it's marvelous…"
On page 133, Currey wrote: [Joseph] Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, sitting at the kitchen table in his Manhattan apartment. "I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years," he said. "I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22…"
I enjoyed learning about the routines of some of my favorite writers like Agatha Christie (page 103) and Mark Twain (page 173). I loved what Philip Larkin wrote on page 130. But my favorite one was about Jonathan Franzen (pp. 227-228) as it is romantic, sad, and inspiring, too.
The daily ritual entry for each person ranges from a paragraph or two to a page or two. It's a good book to read when you have a difficult time getting starting. Look at all these 161 people accomplished because they got their work done. Get your work done and see where it takes you.
What are your daily writing rituals?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Colorful Way to Unleash Your Creativity

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

I recently embarked on a total color makeover for our home.  For the past two years I’ve dreamed and planned of doing a Caribbean color scheme but just never seemed to have enough time in my crazy schedule to make it happen.  Did I mention I actually purchased the paint about 6 months ago as well as accessories like new throw pillows, tropical wall hangings and even a bold and beautiful hibiscus patterned area rug to place in the living room?  The only thing I didn’t seem to have was the actual time to paint, but that all changed earlier this week, and I have my writing to thank for it.

I have a routine where I write for about 15 minutes every morning in my “morning pages journal.”  Basically, I set aside this time to journal anything and everything that pops into my mind.  Some mornings I feel as though I’m brilliant, other times I feel somewhat foolish about the thoughts that are flowing from my mind to the paper.  No matter what ends up on my pages, however, one thing is always guaranteed—my mind will be free from anything that was either bothering me or that I just had the urge to unload and the result always leaves me feeling free and ready to take on the day.

As I was writing my “morning pages” one day last week, I just couldn’t get the Caribbean makeover I’ve longed to have for so long out of my mind.  My pages were full of comments about wispy palm trees, tranquil turquoise waters, and breathtaking coral reefs glistening in the teal Caribbean ocean.  I made up my mind once and for all that no matter what, I would begin painting at least one room this week and would then schedule time to paint a little bit nearly every day for the next month until it was done.

I’m pleased to announce that as of the time this blog post was created, our living room has been transformed from walls of buttery yellow to a soothing aqua with crisp white trim.  Not only did the change in color lift my spirits and get my creative “writing juices” flowing, it also made a big impression on my children.  They all commented on how “happy” this new color made them feel. 
This dramatic Caribbean Color Scheme inspires my mood and my writing!

Colors are very personal and therefore based on your individual preferences, and I definitely believe that some colors may place you in a more creative mood than others.  I did some research on color and found that the core colors that inspire creativity are orange and yellow:

•Orange is said to inspire creativity and enthusiasm.
•Yellow is said to inspire creativity, imagination and inspiration.

So when thinking about using color to inspire creativity consider various colors in turn and think about how those colors make you feel. What thoughts, memories and experiences do the colors trigger? Do they elicit a positive emotional response?
If you are adding color to a workspace to inspire creativity you have to remember that at the end of the day it is your space and should reflect your personality while also inspiring you to be creative.

Research shows that warm colors such as yellow, orange and red dominate space and encourage conversation. Yellow increases energy flow and inspires creativity, red stimulates and invites adrenaline rush.
Passive or cooler colors such as blue green and purple are background colors and tend to have more of a calming effect. Blue is relaxing and refreshing and helps induce peace and tranquility whereas green is refreshing and is said to encourage emotional growth. Purple is mysterious and comforting.

For a fun writing exercise, visit this color scheme designer which is primarily used for picking colors to aid the development of web sites.  Click on the different color combinations (it’s an excellent site to assist you in selecting color combinations and various shades of that color that complement each other) and write a few paragraphs about anything that a particular color makes you think about or feel.  Just be forewarned, once you're done writing, you might be running to your local paint store to start a makeover of your own!

Does any particular color evoke something magical or mysterious for you when you write?  Share your thoughts In the comment section.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reads for Writers: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop by Stephen Koch

From Kate's Writing Crate…

            As much as I love solitude and writing, I also enjoy feeling like part of a team. Since authors are not dropping by my office every day to discuss writing, I read books quoting them about their writing habits and advice.

            Recently, I finished The Modern Library Writer's Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch. The chapters covering Beginnings, The Writing Life, Shaping the Story, Making Characters Live, Inventing Your Style, The Story of the Self, Working and Reworking, and Finishing are filled with examples and quotes from authors famous and new-to-me.

            On page 34: "Writing a novel is gathering smoke," says Walter Mosley. "It's an excursion into the ether of ideas." [Stephen Koch adds] Most people dismiss most of their imaginative life with amused indifference, and maybe a little contempt. That is where you must part company with most people. Your fantasies are a resource…you must catch them, hold them, and exploit them.

            On page 42: [Stephen Koch writes] Read for love. Every writer ought to fall in love with some new writer or work with fair regularity, and the passion should hit with a fervor that makes each new book a hot date and every stolen fifteen minutes of browsing an intoxicated rendezvous... "being swept away," says Stephen King, "by a combination of great story and great writing—of being flattened, in fact—is part of every writer's necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you."

            On page 86: If you begin with a character, Ray Bradbury advises that you "find a character like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story."
            On page 115: [Stephen Koch writes] Many writers tune their ear for prose by starting their day with a prose stimulant—a good, hot, steaming cup of strong, perfect prose… "I'll read something," says Maya Angelou, "maybe the Psalms…something from Mrs. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson…Mary Gordon has an elaborate ritual: "Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can't begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals."
            On page 205 is the chapter entitled Postscript: Writing on the Craft that lists with descriptions recommended reading of authors and books from the Ancients to modern times. I have read many of these books. My favorites include: Bird By Bird; The Writer's Chapbook; Zen in the Art of Writing; On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; One Writer's Beginnings; and The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers.
            Stephen Koch's book is a terrific resource for inspiration. I have underlined and marked pages in half the book roughly. This is always a sign to me that the book should be recommended to others.
Please let me know if you enjoy this book, too.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The 22 Rules of Storytelling

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As a mom, one of the most special pleasures in my day is tucking my kids in at night and telling them a bedtime story.  Each of my kids has their favorites—Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by the talented Eric Carle, and one of my top picks—The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, to name just three. 

Sometimes, I truly don’t know who enjoys this ritual more—me or my kids.  For one, I have their undivided attention because they are finally winding down from a very busy day, and though their little minds may still be racing about the slimy frog they caught in the backyard or about the gigantic pillow fort they intend on building in our family room the following day they begin to relax into the safe haven of their bedrooms and a feeling of contentedness and bliss just envelopes the room.  It’s like flipping an invisible switch from chaos to peaceful the minute those first few pages are read.

We don’t always stick to the tried and true book requests every night.  Many times one of them will excitedly say “Mom, can you tell us a story about________________?”  We fill in the blank with countless topics—outer space, mermaids, secret tunnels in our back yard—you name it.  If I’m feeling particularly creative I find there is no end to the story lines I can conjure up in a moment’s notice.  On the other hand, there are plenty of nights I have to really search my make-believe data base to come up with something that I hope will hold their attention. 

Writers can often think off the cuff and regardless of whether their ideas turn into anything tangible or not, it’s the process of grabbing a concept out of thin air and turning it into something concrete that can be so fulfilling and exciting. When we get stuck, however, we seek out our favorite methods to bust through our writer's block so we can keep at it, and for me watching funny movies usually does the trick.

During the summer months, my family and I tend to see movies more than any other time of the year.  Last week, we saw a delightful children’s movie called Despicable Me 2.  I won’t go into detail about the plot, but what I will share is that watching this animated movie really got me thinking outside the box with my own storytelling.  No matter how ridiculous some ideas may seem, when they are fabricated into a final product that bring loveable and even sinister characters into your life which cause you to think, feel, and breathe a little differently the result in my mind is a job well done.

I recently found a list of 22 Rules of Storytelling created by Pixar that have really sparked my muse.  I thought I’d end my post today by sharing them.  Perhaps you’ll find a few of these rules as interesting as I did.
My favorite on the list is:  “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle.  Seriously, endings are hard, get yours working up front.”

Which rule do you like best?  Please share with us here in the comments.